'What did we do?' Families anxious about chemicals found in tap water

Emergency response teams hand out bottled water to residents at Parchment High School.

Story highlights

  • The city of Parchment, Michigan, learned that its tap water had high levels of contaminants
  • Officials took immediate action, but residents are concerned about health
  • "Do I make small babies," one mom asks, "or do I make small babies because I drink poisoned water?"

(CNN)It's been about three weeks since Tammy Cooper last drank water from her tap. That's when she saw a warning on Facebook for residents of her small Western Michigan town to stop drinking the water.

In Michigan, water main breaks aren't unusual, although they're more common in winter. It didn't immediately strike Cooper as out of the ordinary to not be able to drink the water.
    But the Facebook message made no mention of the run-of-the-mill breaks or chloroform warnings; rather, the city's July 26 post said, "We have just been informed this afternoon by the [Michigan Department of Environmental Quality] that the PFAS level in a City well is 1400 ppt. The limit being 70 ppt."
    It advised using bottled water for cooking, drinking and making baby formula.
    "I immediately felt really sick," Cooper said.
    PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a family of more than 4,000 synthetic chemicals that degrade very slowly, if at all, in the environment. Some of the best-known chemicals are PFOS, PFOA and GenX.
    It's not the first time Michigan has dealt with toxic tap water; the legacy of Flint is not far behind. But unlike in the Flint lead crisis, it's unknown how long the water in Parchment has been contaminated with PFAS.
    Now, all Cooper could see were toxins all over her house, poisoning her nearly 3-year-old daughter, Jillian, who has lived in Parchment most of her life.
    "You look around and you have sippy cups around," she said. Every cup of water -- in fact, anything using the water -- became suspect.

    A persistent problem

    The chemicals have been used for decades on military bases and in industrial areas in the manufacturing of thousands of consumer items including food packaging materials, water-resistant fabrics, nonstick cooking pans and firefighting foams.
    "They're extremely strong, and they are extrem